Labor Day
Dancers make their colorful opening entry at the Sac and Fox Powwow near Stroud on Sunday, July 15, 2018. The 2021 powwow was cancelled owing to COVID-19. (Michael Duncan)

Tribal citizens who look forward every year to national holidays and other festive gatherings are facing disappointment once again.

Leaders across Oklahoma have posted messages on tribal websites announcing that, owing to the COVID-19 uptick, events planned for Labor Day weekend and beyond will be canceled, in most cases for the second consecutive year. 

Unlike the hands-off approach of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, many of the state’s tribes are taking more aggressive steps to protect their citizens.

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

“Our top priority is the health and safety of our tribal members, associates and the communities we serve,” said Choctaw Chief Gary Batton in announcing the cancelation of the Labor Day Festival and other large gatherings. “We realize this is a huge disappointment to our tribal members and those who have celebrated with us.”

Certain events, including Batton’s State of the Nation address, will take place virtually on Monday, Sept 6.

Some tribal offices have closed or returned to COVID-19 protocols such as requiring masks and social distancing. Others are offering incentives to employees to get vaccinated.

The Cherokee Nation canceled some events and shifted others to a virtual format for the 69th annual Cherokee National Holiday scheduled for Labor Day weekend. Cancelations include the inter-tribal powwow, softball and golf tournaments, stickball exhibition, car show and artisan markets.

“The health and safety of our Cherokee people must be at the core of every decision we make,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Today, unfortunately, the W.W. Hastings Hospital Intensive Care Unit remains full due to the COVID-19 Delta variant, hospitalizations are on the rise, and we grieve over the loss of Cherokee speakers and elders who fell ill at the hands of this virus.

“Positive cases have rapidly increased across the reservation, causing our health system, and others, to feel overwhelming stresses including a lack of available in-patient beds.”

Hoskin said new cases have been on an upward trend since June. About 95 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the tribe’s health system are among unvaccinated patients, and about 90% of new cases are from the highly contagious Delta variant.

The Osage Nation has “strongly recommended” all tribal employees be fully vaccinated.

“Although vaccination of all employees is not being made mandatory at this time, mandatory vaccinations may be required in the future should the situation with the spread of the COVID-19 virus make it necessary,” Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear wrote in a memo to employees. “As an incentive to those employees who have taken the extra step in helping protect themselves and others in the fight against COVID-19 by becoming fully vaccinated, an extra day off will be granted to those employees who have completed (their vaccinations).”

Seminole Nation of Oklahoma Chief-elect Lewis J. Johnson announced the cancellation of Seminole Nation Days next month.

“I must make a decision based on science and data for the protection and wellbeing of our tribal members,” Lewis said.

The Comanche Nation has closed its tribal offices, and fair board officers canceled the Comanche Nation Fair scheduled for September.

Cheyenne and Arapaho Gov. Reggie Wassana has restricted until at least Sept. 22 all powwows and social gatherings, including funerals. Tribal offices are closed, and essential services are being provided by appointment only.

Wassana said a planning process is underway to provide $200 Visa gift cards within the next few weeks to fully vaccinated tribal members age 12 and older.

Cheyenne and Arapaho employees who are not fully vaccinated by Sept. 6 will be placed on unpaid leave until the first shot is received. Employees who choose not to be vaccinated will remain on leave until tribal leaders determine it is safe for unvaccinated employees to return to the workplace.